Category Archives: Discipleship

“Who Is My Neighbor?” – Sermon on Luke 10:25-37: The Good Samaritan

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Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” – Luke 10:25-37

The last week of June, 43 children ages 3 through 12 from Ebenezer, Unity, and Immanuel Lutheran Churches – as well as several children from the neighborhood – gathered with many of our youth and adults for Vacation Bible School. The curriculum was developed by ELCA World Hunger, and the theme for the week was: Who is My Neighbor?

Throughout the week, we sang songs in different languages and we prayed together. We learned the parable of the Good Samaritan and we heard a few other parables about how God calls us to care for others. We made crafts and we definitely had a lot of fun getting each other wet with water balloons.

Each day, we heard stories about many of our neighbors here in Chicago and in several countries across the world who are experiencing homelessness or hunger for a variety of reasons. We learned how ELCA World Hunger is currently partnering with some of our global neighbors to work to end hunger, we ate snacks that are often eaten in these countries, and we talked about some ways we can personally share God’s love with our local neighbors.

And then the children put all of this into practice. Three of the four days, they participated in service-learning projects to learn about and offer their love and support to some of our neighbors in need.   And every day, this group of children – who were a wide range of ages, who have different abilities and needs, who attend multiple churches and schools, and whose families come from different countries of origin: welcomed one another, built community together, and offered care for each other.

Who is My Neighbor?

*****

We hear this question in our Gospel this morning.

Jesus is traveling toward Jerusalem when – on his way – he is approached by a lawyer. This lawyer – who probably did not like all the messages he was hearing from Jesus – tries to test him. “Teacher,” the lawyer says. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Well,” Jesus says, “You’re the lawyer. What is written in the law? “

The lawyer – who knows his stuff – answers from Leviticus and Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

“You have given the right answer,” Jesus says. “Do this, and you will have life.”

But – wanting to justify himself, the lawyer pushes a little farther: “And who exactly is my neighbor?” he asks.

It’s easy for us to point our fingers at the lawyer and look down on him for being the testy and exclusive character in the story. And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, I think we can often get testy with Jesus, asking him this very same question, as well. Who exactly is my neighbor? Who do I really need to love and care for?

Because behind this question is another stronger question: “Who isn’t my neighbor?” Who are the people I can ignore when I see their suffering? Who are the people I can exclude? Who are the ones who don’t belong in our community, but rather belong behind walls… Who are the ones we can justify deporting, separating from their families, or putting into cages? There certainly has to be some kind of boundary somewhere. So where can we draw the line?”

Jesus – of course – answers the lawyer’s question by telling a story – what we know to be the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Many of us have probably heard this story numerous times. It is one of the most well-known stories of the bible. And for most of us – it can seem like a pretty reasonable story. There is a man who is attacked by robbers while traveling on the road toward Jericho. He is beaten and left on the side of the road half-dead. Two men walk by and ignore him. But the third one stops and helps him. Jesus tells us to be like that third man. End of story. Go and do likewise.

But for Jesus’ audience, this was quite a shocking story – which, of course, was Jesus’ intention. He had a way of shocking folks through his parables that constantly flipped their social order upside down.

You see, it would have been one thing for Jesus to tell a story where the priest, the Levite, or even a devout man of the Jewish faith was the helper and hero. The Jewish faith was full of commands to help the wounded and save those who were dying. Of all people, the religious leaders would have been expected to do something to help a dying man on the side of the road, especially one who is a fellow Jewish man.

So for Jesus’ audience, it would have been a bit unsettling to hear these two just walked on by.

Although, it would have also been understandable.

You see, Jesus’ audience also knew quite well what the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was like. It was an incredibly dangerous road, full of windy turns that made it easy for robbers to hide from a traveler’s view. And it was actually known as the “Way of Blood” because of the amount of blood shed by robbers. It would have been incredibly risky for anyone – Levite, priest, or layperson alike – to stop and help a person on the side of the road. The robbers could be hiding somewhere on the windy path, waiting for another person to attack. And who knows the reasons this person was lying on the side of the road in the first place. This guy could be faking it, and setting someone up for an ambush. Most people would be terrified in this situation. So it could be understandable for anyone to want to immediately run to the other side of the road and move as quickly as they could to get to their final destination.

And in addition to all of this, whoever chose to help this dying man would have to stop whatever they were doing and use their own resources – if they had any – and go out of their way to get this person to a safe place where they could get the care they needed. And this would NOT have been easy. It’s not like they could quickly run down to Clark St. to get to the closest ATM or use their cell phone to call an ambulance or an uber.

So you see, it would have been quite a lot to ask – for a devout man of the faith or even a religious leader to help another Jewish man in this circumstance.

However, at this point in Jesus’ ministry it would not have been too surprising to hear him call on the faithful to take these kinds of risks anyway in order to help out their dying brother in the faith.

But this is not how the story goes. We all know that Jesus is too radical for telling a parable that ends this simply.

Now, let’s just pretend that Jesus told a story about a Samaritan man who was beaten up and left on the side of the road, and it was a devout person of the Jewish faith who helped him out… This would have definitely been more surprising because while Samaritans and Jews shared historical roots, they split centuries before over political, religious, and ethnic differences. And this centuries-old hostility toward one another was deeply engrained. They despised each other. They considered each other enemies.

And so it would have been quite a big deal for a devout Jewish man to help his enemy, who was considered ceremonially unclean, religiously heretical, ethnically inferior, and a social outcast!

But it would still not be completely over-the-top. This version of the story would just make the religious leader or the devout person of faith a very compassionate hero. But he would still get to remain the superior one, who only now has just saved someone who is his inferior: the less-human Samaritan. And this hero – and everyone who follows his example and goes and does likewise – can still continue to pat themselves on their backs for their good works and hold onto what is often referred to as savior-complexes.

But Jesus does not even tell this version of the story.

Because Jesus – our only savior – has no room for savior-complexes.

And so instead of making the Levite, or the priest, or another devout person of the faith the hero, Jesus makes the most shocking person of all – the hero: the Samaritan man.

And this Samaritan man does not only stop to help the dying Jewish man on the side of the road. He sees him and all of his humanity. He notices his wounds – which in Greek is the word traumata, or trauma. And so he recognizes that this man not only has physical wounds, but he has also been traumatized.

And in seeing all of this, the Samaritan man has deep compassion for the Jewish man on the side of the road. So he takes a dangerous risk, walks over to this man, and gives him first aid treatment.

 But he does not stop there. He puts the injured man on his animal, and travels however long it takes to get to the closest inn. And then the Samaritan man stays with him at the inn for the entire night so he does not have to be alone after such a traumatic event. And the Samaritan makes sure this man is not only physically ok, but he also makes sure that he is emotionally and psychologically ok. And then the next morning he pays the innkeeper whatever is needed to ensure this man is cared for.

*****

So who is my neighbor?

Or, as the lawyer in our Gospel this morning was really asking:

Who isn’t my neighbor?

Well, Jesus’ answer is plain and simple. EVERYONE is our neighbor. Even that person we consider to be our enemy. And especially those whom our society deems as less-than.

You see according to Jesus, we can draw no lines. There are no borders in the kingdom of God. The doors to this kingdom are wide open FOR ALL – no matter if one has documentation or not.

In this kingdom, Jesus calls us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and tear down all walls that divide.

For, to love God is to love our neighbor, as we love ourselves. And thus, we can no longer justify any actions that are contrary to God’s love.

And by making the Samaritan the hero in his story, Jesus flips the social order upside down.

You see, to call someone our neighbor is to place them on equal footing. To see their full humanity. In Jesus’ perspective: to be neighbors is to look at one another and make the statement that neither of us is better than the other and that we both deserve to be treated as human beings… It is to recognize that each of us is a beloved child of God, created in God’s image, beautifully and wonderfully just the way we are.

*****

On the last day of Vacation Bible School, I asked a few of the kids to share with their parents and guardians what they learned throughout the week. Some explained that God loves all of us and wants each of us to love and care for our neighbors. Others talked about how God wants us to see how our neighbors are already sharing God’s love with us and with others. One child explained that our neighbors are not just people we know and live next to. Our neighbors are people who even live across the world. Another child explained that our neighbors are people who may speak, look, dress, worship, and act differently than we do, and that is something that makes our neighborhoods and our world beautiful.

One of the things we talked about during the week was that we build up our neighborhood together by loving our neighbors. And throughout the week – in addition to welcoming and loving one another – the kids literally built a neighborhood out of cardboard. On the last day, we brought the final product up to the sanctuary and the children presented it to the adult volunteers and their parents and guardians. And if you looked closely at this large cardboard neighborhood, you could see tall skyscrapers and apartment buildings, the Thorndale redline, a fountain, a haunted house, trees, homes, shelters, animals and people.

But there was one element in the neighborhood that I will never forget that was created by a 6 year old boy. It was a man who is falling off a bridge and another person who is below him ready to help him in his time of need. When asked to explain why he included this, the boy said that he wanted to create a helper, just like the Good Samaritan. Because this is what we are all supposed to do. We are supposed to be the helpers.

Just this morning, when I opened my email, I saw that I had received a message from this boy’s mom. Included in it was a picture of him with a big smile on his face as he held a large sign over his head that read: “Luke 10:25-37: We should be the helpers.” He was holding this sign as he marched downtown with 10,000 other Chicagoans yesterday to call for an end to the criminalization, detention, and deportation of our immigrant neighbors.

“Who is My neighbor?” Maybe the better question to ask is: Who is being my neighbor?

I think the children and youth in our neighborhood have set a good example for us. So may we go, and do likewise.

Day 8: ELCA Youth Gathering Closing Worship & Exploring Houston

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Sunday, July 1 was our final full day in Houston for the ELCA Youth Gathering. (Yes, I’m a bit late at posting but took a much needed rest last week!)

We got up early and checked out of Wyndham Hotel.

Then we headed to the NRG Stadium for our closing worship.

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton preached and gave a big shout out on stage to our very own Lillian and Ngbarezere! They were two of six youth who met with her in early June for a text study to discuss the scripture she preached on at closing worship. In her sermon, she touched on many things these youth discussed with her. What an awesome experience for them and for her!

Then we participated in some powerful worship.

After closing worship, our group brought more beautiful energy, song, and joy to the other groups as we headed out of the NRG Stadium. I was so proud of them for this!

We had to stop and get a group photo with Kalleb, one of our young adults (and former youth group members) who was at the ELCA Youth Gathering as a volunteer for Valparaiso University. It was so great to worship with him this morning!

While most of the other groups dispersed and began their trips home, we had an extra day to hang out as a group and explore a little bit of Houston.

So we took the train downtown to grab some lunch.

Of course we received a few more Johnny and Maku selfies in our group text along the way.

And to make things even more fun, Maku started on our group chat a Holy Roast with your’s truly: Pastor Emily (PE.) I think we all know who won…

We finally made it to our lunch destination, a small local hot spot: Cajun Stop. It. Was. Delicious!

Some of us even tried new things like: fried pickles, fried gator, popcorn shrimp, crab legs, shrimp and hamburger po’boys, and gumbo.

After lunch, we stopped at the Graffiti Building and took some pics.

Then it was time for us to head to our hotel for the night, which was close to the airport. (We had to get up at 3am to make our 6am flight!)

At the hotel, we got to cool down and spend some more time with each other in the pool.

And because it was Jenny’s birthday the next day, we celebrated with a pizza party and surprised her with an ice-cream cake.

Finally, we crammed into Pastor Michael’s room and had our final check-in’s about the trip with each other. Throughout our trip and during tonight’s check ins, our youth showed love to one another and love and grace to me in so many incredible ways. Tonight was probably one of the most holy encounters I’ve experienced in my life, and it was because of these incredibly welcoming, loving young people who shared their lives and created a safe space for one another and for me to open up and share our stories and important parts of our lives with one another. Throughout this week and during our closing check-in tonight, these youth truly embodied the hands and feet of Christ as they shared, listened, encouraged, prayed, cried, sang to, hugged, held, and said “I gotchu” to one another and to me.

In a world and a country that is so full of suffering, heartbreak, and hate, it is these young people who are giving me hope for a better world and showing people like me how to follow Jesus and how to be the welcoming and loving people he calls us to be.

These young people are the Church. They are Jesus’ body in the world. As our theme for the ELCA Youth Gathering this week says: This Changes Everything!

THEY are my hope and THEY are changing everything.

I’m so incredibly grateful for and blessed by them and for/by my young adult leaders Jordan and Ngbarezere and colleague Pastor Michael Fick for accompanying me and these youth on this life-changing trip.

God’s presence has truly been made known.

May we open our eyes to see God in and through our youth, open our hearts to receive God’s grace that they share with us, and follow their lead in offering love to the world.

This Changes Everything!

Guest Post at Conversations on the Fringe: “Maundy Thursday: You’ve Been Served”

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Today I’m writing over at Conversations on the Fringe.

“We must not forget that as pastors and youth workers we, too, cannot give, serve, love, and care for our parishioners, youth, and their families without first being served… By Jesus and by so many of our siblings who are called to be Christ’s hands and feet to us.

Because when we do allow our feet to be washed, we just might be surprised at how much we really needed to be cleansed so that we might be better equipped to return this loving act.”

You can read the rest here.

Guest Post at Conversations on the Fringe: “Lent: An Invitation to Retreat”

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Why observe Lent?  How might we observe Lent in our personal lives, with our families, or in our youth ministries?

I’ve shared a few of my thoughts and included a list of Lenten resources (for youth groups, for families, and for personal devotion) in my latest post at Conversations on the Fringe.

“But this is why we are invited to go into the wilderness in the first place: to examine our lives and to empty and prepare ourselves so that we might know how to respond to the testing of our accuser. So that in our weakest moments, we might know how to look deep within ourselves and be reminded of who we are and whose we are.”

To read the rest, click here.

“Stranger Things” – Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

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“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.”

– Mark 9:2-10

Strange things happen on the top of steep hills and mountains.

I have learned this from experience. Several years ago, when Jonathan and I were in Ireland, we decided we would walk St. Brandon’s Pilgrim Path, an 11 mile ancient Christian pilgrimage that is believed to have first been walked in the late 500s. This path begins along the seaside and then takes you through fields with beautiful scenic views and ancient heritage sites along the route.

When Jonathan and I asked the one taxi driver in the small town we were staying in if she could pick us up at the end of the path, she laughed… and then told us: “Just call me when you get tired…” And when we looked a bit confused, she added: “It’s not as easy as you might think.”

And boy was she right! The trail was hilly and windy, often taking us through long patches of tall grass and weeds that were up to our knees, private fields, thick mud, and rugged terrain.

Once we passed Kilmalkedar Church, an early Christian and later Medieval site, the next several miles of the path were even more difficult and off the grid. As we hiked up a very long, steep hill with only a few small hand painted trail markers to show us the way, the incline got steeper, the winds stronger, the sky darker, and the fog thicker.

When a trail marker directed us to walk through a closed gate, we found ourselves walking uphill through a private sheep farm. This final part of the journey was fun… at first. But after a while, the fog got so thick we could barely see anything around us, not to mention: where we were going. At one point I screamed, as two sheep seemed to appear out of nowhere – frantically running through the fog just two feet in front of us.

And when we tried to backtrack our steps so we could find a place to call and meet our taxi driver, as I took a step on what seemed to be the ground, I ended up falling through one of the many thorn bushes that we soon realized we were surrounded by and that were quite deep and wide. By this point, we had not seen a trail marker for about an hour, we had no phone service, and I was starting to wonder if we were ever going to make it back to our cabin.

Our only hope was to keep going up to the top of the hill, which we still could not see. So we just kept cautiously walking.

But once we eventually got to the top, something else strange happened. The fog thinned out, we could see things a lot more clearly, and the exhausting and – yes – quite terrifying – journey we took to get to where we were all of us sudden seemed worth it. As we looked out over the other side of the hill, we could see some of the most incredible views of Mt. Brandon and miles upon miles of the beautiful Irish countryside. And as we looked down the side of the hill that we had just climbed, we could see the tiny steeple of Kilmalkedar Church off in the distance down below, and the path we took from there seemed to be a little more apparent than before. (Although, I am not going to lie, our journey back down to Kilmalkedar Church was still a bit terrifying.)

Yes, strange things happen on the top of steep hills and mountains.

And this is the case for the disciples in our Gospel text this morning. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John and leads them on what is most likely a long, arduous journey through windy, hilly, and rugged trails and unmarked fields up a high mountain. And when they finally get to the top of the mountain, Jesus is transfigured before them. His appearance changes, and he begins to glow. His clothes become dazzling white, so much so that no one on earth could bleach them, our text says. And then – when you think things could not get anymore weird, they do. Because suddenly out of nowhere, the long departed Moses and Elijah appear before the disciples and begin talking to Jesus.

Such strange things are happening on top of this mountain, that you might expect David Harpour – star of the popular Netflix show Stranger Things – to suddenly appear saying: “It must be a tide ad!” (If you watched the Super Bowl commercials, you know what I am talking about.)

But this is not a tide commercial. It’s the transfiguration. And it is a very strange scene.

So strange that Peter stumbles over his words because he doesn’t know what to say, for he and the other disciples are terrified.

And it’s no wonder they are. They had just seen this strange thing happen on the mountaintop. Here, for the first time, they see Jesus in a completely new light. (Both figuratively and literally).

And many of us know that once we see Jesus in a completely new light, there is no turning back. Everything changes. Sure, eventually we have to go back down the mountain to our every day life, but we do so with a new perspective and with a heart that is open to being transformed.

This is true with any kind of “mountain top” experience where we encounter Jesus in a new light. We begin to see things more clearly. These mountain top experiences may take place during a powerful worship service, at a large Christian gathering (like a conference, prayer retreat, or an ELCA Youth Gathering), or on a mission or service-learning trip.

Or maybe this mountain top experience takes place when we hold our child or our grandchild for the first time, when we hear someone else’s story, when someone sits with us in our pain, when we spend time taking in the nature around us, or when we develop relationships with our neighbors of other faiths and realize that God is so much bigger than we had imagined.

Maybe this mountain top experience is when we are volunteering at the local food pantry and realize for the first time that Jesus is not just working through us and our acts of service to our neighbors experiencing homelessness or hunger. Rather, through our neighbor, Jesus is actually speaking to us.

Or maybe our mountain top experience is when we first attend an anti-racism training or read a book on economic injustice and we begin to recognize our own privilege and prejudices and how they contribute to systemic inequalities.

Here on the mountaintop, Jesus transfigured before the disciples, and now the disciples are being transformed.

The journey the disciples had taken thus far in following Jesus is now seen with news eyes. And the same goes for the journey they would soon take in following Jesus back down the mountain, into the valley, and soon thereafter onto Jerusalem and toward the cross.

But this is – indeed – terrifying. Having this mountain top experience meant that their lives were going to change going forward. For the disciples, this means that soon Jesus will no longer be with them on this earth. How could they continue this ministry on their own? Were they even qualified to do this work? Were they good enough? Were they adequate enough?

It’s no wonder Peter suggests they build three dwellings – or tabernacles – at the top of the mountain (a common ancient practice to mark places where God’s people had a holy encounter.) For these disciples, this was surely a holy place. Plus, if they built the tabernacles, the disciples could stay in this holy space for a while, which could buy them some time before they had to come back down from the mountain top and face the hardships that come in the valley below, knowing who Jesus is and what and who Jesus stands for.

But just as Peter suggests this, a cloud overshadows the disciples, and a voice comes from the cloud saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

I love this response to Peter and the other disciples as they are overcome with fear. Because it reminds us of Jesus’ baptism, when the voice from heaven cries out: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I love this because whenever we recall Jesus’ baptism, we are also reminded of our own. Just as Jesus was named God’s beloved child in his baptism, so too are we – in ours.

No matter how terrified Peter may have been about what was to come and about how Jesus was calling him to live, and no matter how inadequate or unqualified to do this work he might have felt, Peter is God’s beloved child. No matter how terrified, inadequate, or unqualified we might feel about coming down from the mountaintop and living out our call in the valley alongside those most vulnerable and marginalized, we are God’s beloved children, as well.

But the voice in the cloud does not end there.

“This is my Beloved Son,” the voice calls out. “Listen to him.”

When Peter saw Jesus in a new light, he was quick to speak. To give his two cents. To find a quick fix for the situation and for his fears.

And to be quite honest, aren’t we all quick to speak and slow to listen?

But the voice from the cloud calls on Peter to listen first.

You see, when we see Jesus in a new light, we are not just immediately transformed. This is a process and it requires a lot of listening and a lot of self-reflecting. We must be slow to speak and quick to listen. We must listen to God. Listen to our neighbors.  Listen to ourselves.

I love what Mother Teresa told CBS anchor Dan Rather when he asked her what she said during her prayers. She answered: “I listen.” And when Dan asked her: “Well then, what does God say?” she smiled and answered: “He listens.”

It might seem strange that this morning we are on the mountaintop for Jesus’ transfiguration – which takes place toward the end of his public ministry – and then next week we go back to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – before Jesus’ ministry even begins. And yet, I think it makes sense that we are on the mountaintop this morning before we begin our Lenten journey through the wilderness this Wednesday.

Because I think this is similar to real life. Isn’t life often like a roller-coaster ride, bringing us from the mountaintop right down to the valley and into the wilderness and then on toward the cross before we can experience the resurrection… just before the roller-coaster ride begins again.

The disciples needed the mountaintop in order to see things more clearly before they followed Jesus toward the cross and onto what came next. They needed this as a holy place to begin their journey of transformation.

And so do we.

As Thomas Jay Oord wrote in his commentary on this text in the Christian Century magazine this week: “Mountains can bring us to attention. Sometimes we need to be atop a mountain to remember our reason for the journey. Mountains can give us the novel perspective we need to make sense of things; they can renew us. And sometimes only atop a mountain – after a grueling hike, with an aching body, oxygen-starved lungs, and sweat-drenced skin- can we truly hear the voice of wisdom: ‘this is my beloved son. Listen to him.’”

So this Lent, as we take this journey down from the mountaintop and into the wilderness, may we open our hearts to being transformed. May we choose to do this holy work of listening.

Amen.

“A Messy and Fishy Kind of Sermon” – Sermon on Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20

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I love how our Hebrew and Gospel stories are paired together this morning. Because I think these two stories share several similar themes.

First, we have two fish stories. We have Jonah, who many of us probably remember has something to do with a giant fish. And then we have four of Jesus’ earliest disciples, who happen to be fishermen. And when Jesus sees them fishing, he says to them: “I will make you fish for people.”

Secondly, these are two call stories. God has called the prophet Jonah to go into the city of Ninevah and cry out against the Ninevite’s wickedness. And in our Gospel, while Jesus is proclaiming the good news of God, he sees four fishermen fishing in the Sea of Galilee, and he – a rabbi – calls out to them: “follow me,” asking them to become his disciples, or his students.

The third theme these stories seem to share is that when we look at the stories as given to us through our assigned lectionary readings this morning – without any additional context about the people involved – they both seem to be picture-perfect call stories.

When Jonah hears God calling him, he listens, immediately gets up, goes to Ninevah, and cries out to the Ninevites, proclaiming their impending destruction for the wickedness of their ways. And they repent.

And in our Gospel, when Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John hear Jesus calling them, they immediately get up, drop their fishing nets, and follow Jesus as he travels across Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, and bringing healing to the sick and the suffering. And they leave everything they have and know behind them without any knowledge of where they are going or what will come next.

You see, it looks as though this morning we have two neat and tidy call stories, with what appear to be confident, obedient, and qualified people of God who respond to God’s call to go and proclaim the good news of God’s love and to do God’s work in the world.

But if we look beyond the lectionary readings this morning, we will see that these calls stories are far from neat and tidy, and the people being called are far from perfect.

You see, when Jonah was first called by God to go and speak to Ninevah, instead of going, he jumps on the first ship he can find that will take him to Tarshish, a city that is in the complete opposite direction of Ninevah. And he goes down into the hold of the ship to hide out, hoping to escape God’s presence. But God sends a great storm upon the sea, and – as the winds strengthen and the sailors can’t seem to get the ship back to land – Jonah is eventually thrown overboard. So God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah. And while Jonah is sitting in the belly of the fish, he gives thanks to God for hearing his cries. And so God hears his prayers again, speaks to the fish, and the fish ends up vomiting him up onto dry land.

This is where we come to our lectionary passage this morning. God calls out to Jonah a second time to go to Ninevah. And so this once very disobedient Jonah, who is now covered in sea water and fish puke, happily goes to Ninevah to tell them about their wicked ways and their impending destruction.

No, this is not a neat and tidy call story at all. This story is rather quite messy… and probably pretty smelly.

Now, when the people hear Jonah’s cries, the Ninevites – ALL of them – even the animals – begin to fast, cover themselves in sackcloths, and cry out to God, repenting of their evil ways. And when God sees they have turned from their old ways, God forgives them and decides to no longer bring about calamity upon them.

Now, you would have thought that Jonah would have been ecstatic about this news. And you would have thought that he would have learned his lesson by now and turned from his old ways.

But you would have thought wrong. And the messiness continues.

Jonah is extremely displeased with this news. How can God give those undeserving Ninevites a second chance?! And so out of anger he shouts at God: “Please take my life away from me. For it is better for me to die than to live.” Then he stomps off and finds a shaded place to sit just outside of the city where he can pout and wait and watch what will happen to the city, hoping he gets his way after all.

But (Spoiler alert): he doesn’t actually get his way.

So Jonah’s call story is fishy, stinky, and a real big mess. But God still sees the potential in Jonah, and God continues to show up for him and to call him to participate in God’s work.

And while our Gospel call story this morning isn’t quite as messy as Jonah’s, it still isn’t the picture-perfect scene with picture-perfect people it seems to be at first glance.

You see, in first century Judaism – particularly in the region of Galilee – there was a very extensive process a man would have to go through in order to become a disciple – or a follower – of a rabbi.  There were several levels of religious education, beginning at age 4 or 5. Only the top students coming out of each level of education would continue onto the next level, and only the top of the top of the top would eventually be eligible to follow a rabbi (and even then, the rabbi would not necessarily choose to take him as a student). Since Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John were all in the fishing trade, they would have only finished as far as the second level of education and may have only been through the first level of education.

And so these four fishermen had not made a typical rabbi’s cut.  They were not the top students of their day.  They did not have an extensive resume – scriptural knowledge, interpretations, or religious lingo – that would have enabled them to continue climbing the educational ladder.  And so they were definitely not qualified to become a rabbi’s disciple.

And yet, for some reason, Jesus thinks otherwise. For some reason, Jesus sees a great potential in these average, ordinary men fishing in the Sea of Galilee. And so when he sees them fishing, he stops and he calls out to them: follow me.

And immediately, these average fishermen do just that. They drop their nets and – even though they most likely were covered in smelly fish guts – they follow him.

But even though these ordinary fishermen seem to be obedient at first, if we read on, we will see that they – too – continue to be far from perfect. The disciples often misunderstand Jesus’ teachings, question his authority, doubt his promises, hide out when they get scared, and some even betray and deny him.

And so, in some ways, like Jonah’s call story – this one, too, is fishy, stinky, and a real big mess.

But Jesus still sees the potential in and the gifts of these disciples, and he doesn’t give up on them. He continues to love them, to show up for them, and to walk alongside them in all of the beauty and the messiness of this difficult call.

I just love these two fishy and messy call stories.

Because they seem more like real life.

And just as God saw the potential in Jonah and continued to show up for him – even through all of his grumpiness, failures and mistakes – and just as Jesus saw the potential in those four ordinary fishermen and believed in them, so does God see and believe in each one of us – no matter how little qualified we may feel, no matter how grumpy we might get, and no matter how imperfect we may be.

In just a little while, we will celebrate the baptism of Savannah Grace. And I think it’s quite appropriate to do so as we look at these two biblical call stories.

Because a baptism is a call story. And – as we have seen with Jonah and the early disciples, a baptismal call story is a life-long journey that is nothing close to neat and tidy.

 But in our baptism, we are claimed by our compassionate and merciful God – who loves us in and through all of our messiness and fishiness. Who loves us through all of our grumpiness, our failures, our struggles, our doubts. In our baptism, we are called and welcomed into the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims – a Kingdom that is full of grace, forgiveness, and unconditional love. We are welcomed into this Kingdom of God, and nothing and no one can keep us from it.

When we celebrate the baptism of one of our own at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, we do this here in community. Because we are not expected to pursue this baptismal life alone. Rather, in Christ, we are called to live this baptismal life together. In Christ, we are called to see and affirm the image of God in one another and recognize the potential and the gifts of one another. We are called to share in each other’s joys, help carry one another’s burdens, and walk alongside one another in all of the messiness that takes place as we live out our call to proclaim the good news of God’s love to the world.

And so as we come together this morning to celebrate the baptism of Savannah Grace, let us also remember our own baptisms. Let us remember that we are all beloved children of God, and that by grace, God calls each one of us.

And even when we are covered in stinky fish puke and guts, Jesus will still see that we are – indeed worthy of this call – and he will continue to say to us, “follow me.”

Amen.

“The Way” – Sermon on John 14:1-14

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“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. – John 14:1-14

“I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” John: 14:6.

To be quite honest, whenever I hear this verse, I cringe a little. Maybe it’s because of the many billboards or bumper stickers I’ve seen it broadcasted on. Or the number of times I’ve heard street preachers yell it at complete strangers. Or maybe it’s because of the ways in which it had been misquoted and used by friends and leaders in the campus ministry I was involved in in college.

You see, this “I AM” declaration by Jesus in our passage from John today has often been used to exclude: determining who’s in and who’s out of the Christian club. Christians often use this verse to condemn those who are not Christians and to point fingers at others whom we determine are not “believers” by our own standards. And in the meantime, while we take this verse out of its context and hold onto this very limited – and what I believe to be often quite harmful – understanding, I think we miss out on a much deeper meaning of this “I AM” statement.

And so, in order to better understand what Jesus meant by this statement, we need to look at what is actually going on when he says it.

And when we do, we might find it a bit odd to be looking at this text in John several weeks after celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. Because we are now going back to the event on Maundy Thursday, where Jesus is gathered around the table with his closest friends, sharing in his last supper with them before he begins his journey toward the cross. (However, I do think it may become a little more clear in a bit about why we are reading this text as we are getting close to Ascension Day.)

Now, throughout this final meal with his disciples, Jesus has been dropping hints about having to leave them soon, not only in his impending death on the cross, but also in his ascension into heaven, which means he will no longer be physically present with them.

“Lord, where are you going?” Peter asks Jesus right before our text for this morning. “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now,” Jesus answers him. “But there will come a time when you will follow me.” Worried about what this would mean for Jesus to leave him (after he’s been with Jesus day in and day out for three years), Peter pushes him: “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

But Jesus urges Peter and the rest of the disciples to be patient and to hold onto hope, assuring them: “While there soon will come a time that will feel hopeless, do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. Although we may be separated for a little while, we will one day be reunited. I am going to my Father’s house, where there are many rooms. And I am preparing a room there for each of you so that one day where I will be, there you will be also. For you know the way to the place I am going.”

But the disciples still don’t quite understand. And – possibly out of their grief and concerns about Jesus leaving – they try to convince him to stay.

“But Lord,” Thomas exclaims, “we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way to get there if you are not with us?”

I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me,” Jesus replies. “You have already seen the Father. If you know me, then you will know the Father, also.”

But – still confused – Philip chimes in: “Show us the Father. Then we will be satisfied.”

By this point it makes sense that Jesus might be a little frustrated with his friends. “After following me day in and day out for the last three years, you still don’t know who I am?” he asks. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Believe me, that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

—–

I’ll never forget what one of my friends who was involved in my college campus ministry said to one of our agnostic friends one day. The friend involved in the ministry said: “You don’t want to burn in hell for all eternity after you die, do you? Because the way to heaven – where you will not burn in hell – is easy. You just need to believe that Jesus is your personal Lord and Savior and ask him into your heart.” Then she opened her bible up to John 14 and quoted Jesus’ “I am the way…” statement.

I was a little taken aback by what seemed to be pretty harsh words by my college friend, who took pride in being a Christian.  And I was also a bit concerned about how my agnostic friend was feeling at that moment.

But what really caught my attention was what our agnostic friend said in response to this. “Really?” She asked. “It’s that easy to not burn in hell? So all you have to do is believe that Jesus is your Savior and you can continue to openly be a jerk to everyone who doesn’t believe what you believe? But those who don’t believe that Jesus is God and yet they love others the way Jesus loved others are going to burn in hell forever? That doesn’t really sound like Jesus’ message at all.”

This conversation – along with many other similar ones I’d observed during my time in that campus ministry – opened my eyes to the fact that just about anyone can shout out that Jesus is their Savior until they’re blue in the face. But that still does not guarantee they get who Jesus is or understand what he’s all about.

And what really struck me in this particular conversation was that it was my agnostic friend who seemed to get who Jesus is more than my Christian friend.

You see, if we read Jesus’ entire farewell discourse to his disciples after his last meal with them before his impending death, we will recognize that the way to God Jesus is telling his friends to take is not as easy as my Christian friend explained it to be. It’s not having belief ABOUT who Jesus is, asking Jesus to come into our hearts, and then going on our merry way. Rather, it is about following Jesus’ way. A way that – as Jesus explains just before our passage for today – involves a commandment to love one another, just as he has loved us… Something that is not – in fact – very easy to do

And yes, Jesus tells his close friends to believe in God and to believe also in him. But he does not say that if they don’t, they will burn in hell for eternity.

Actually, his message to his close friends is quite the opposite. Even though the disciples are still a bit confused at times about who Jesus is, Jesus knows they have already put their faith and trust in him – at least, as much as they possibly could at this point in time. I mean, they gave up everything they had to follow him and stayed with and learned from him for three years, even when it wasn’t the most popular or safe thing to do. If that isn’t putting their faith and trust in him, I don’t really know what is!

“Believe me,” Jesus is urging them.  “I have prepared a room in my Father’s house for each one of you.  We will one day be reunited.”  This is a guarantee.

So now, when the disciples are worried about what their future will entail when Jesus leaves them – Jesus assures them that they are going to be okay without having Jesus physically by their sides. And so they should hold onto this hope, no matter what comes their way.

“Continue to have faith in me,” he urges them. “You have a loving God. You know this because you have already seen God. Because you have seen me. So when you wonder what kind of a God you have and where God is when you encounter times of great trials and suffering, look to me, and there you will find God.”

—–

I think this is a great reminder for us.

In a world that is full of violence, hate, and exclusion of all kinds, many of us may be wondering – like Thomas – where God went and what the path is that we need to take in order to find God. Or many of us may be calling out like Philip, “Show us God!” and demanding to see some proof in the world that God cares.

And so when we begin to wonder what kind of a God we have, we can look to Jesus. We can look to his teachings and look to his works. Look at the ways in which he proclaimed good news to the poor, released those who were captive, gave sight to those who couldn’t see, and liberated the oppressed. Look at the ways he fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick. When we begin to wonder where God is, we can look into the faces of the last and the least and look for the people around us who are following Jesus’ way of life and sharing his love to a hurting world.

When we wonder what way to go in order to find Jesus, we can look for the people and the places in this world that need healing and Jesus’ good news the most. “This is where you will find and encounter me,” Jesus is saying. “This is the way to God.”

And Jesus doesn’t just end here. He continues with a commission for the disciples and for all of us to continue this work when he is physically gone from this earth. “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

In other words, Jesus is saying: “Now it is you who will be my hands and feet in the world.”

I think our ELCA moto says this well: “It is God’s work, our hands.”

And soon – on Ascension Day – we will be reminded that we are not alone in this work. The Holy Spirit is with us always, giving us strength, comfort, and guidance every step of the way.

Amen.

 

 

Encouragement for My Fellow Women Pastors

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A little encouragement for my fellow women pastors (and faith leaders of all traditions) out there:

Yesterday, a parishioner told me that when her two young daughters saw me a few weeks ago, one of them said: “Is that Pastor Emily? You know, she is the only woman pastor I’ve ever seen.” Her mom said she was surprised that her daughter recognized this, and she told me she was so thankful her children have a woman pastor and are able to hear a woman’s voice in the pulpit.

Fellow women pastors (and faith leaders): I am so grateful for each and every one of you. I know it can be extremely difficult to constantly have to face and shut down sexism and stereotypes that are still prevalent in many religious institutions/communities and even in our society. No matter how hard it may be, remember that you are beloved, your voices matter, and you are making a difference in so many people’s lives (young and old).

And I’d like to say a special thank you to all the women pastors and faith leaders in my childhood/youth/adulthood for being those important voices in my life, for modeling what female faith leadership looks like, and showing me that I – too – have a voice in ministry.

Why I Was Arrested at Moral Mondays IL:

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On Monday, June 29, 2015, two Lutheran pastors, two Methodist pastors, a rabbi, two community organizers, and a senior citizen got arrested for trespassing in the lobby of Citadel in downtown Chicago during a Moral Mondays Illinois action.

I was one of them.

…Sounds like a line of a joke, right?

Well, it’s not.

Illinois is in the middle of a crisis right now.  We are being told that it is a budget crisis.  However, I think the more accurate name for it is a revenue crisis (and what I like to call a moral crisis.)

Since July, we have not had a budget.  And because so many non-profit organizations and services have no money on the budget line, they are at risk of having to shut down programs and/or lay off staff.  And even if the current budget proposal does go through, budgets for many services and organizations will be cut, and thus those in our communities who rely on these services and programs will greatly suffer.

I serve as the shared Pastor with Youth and Households for three ELCA congregations in Edgewater, a community that is home to a large population of immigrants and refugees. As a pastor who works with many refugee and immigrant youth and families, I am well aware of the multiple hurdles and struggles these families (who have already been through so much severe trauma) face as they transition into a new country and culture. Refugee resettlement and immigration organizations help these families with job placement, finding affordable housing, gaining citizenship, English language assistance, and wellness programs that help meet their mental health needs. They provide these families with referrals to food pantries, utilities subsidies (LIHEAP), and low-income clinics, as well as help families apply for medical cards, childcare, and food stamps. RefugeeOne is one of the major refugee resettlement organizations in Chicago, receiving around 500 new individuals a year. Several families I’ve worked with have greatly benefited from the services offered by RefugeeOne, and many youth and children I’ve worked with have attended the RefugeeOne after-school program, which meets at Unity Lutheran Church, one of my congregations.

About 70% of RefugeeOne’s funding comes from the government, much of which is from the state. With the proposed cuts to immigration services, the organization could see program closures and staff layoffs. Similarly, Centro Romero, an immigrant and refugee assistance organization that serves many families in my community, was forced to lay off four of their staff and close their Family Service Program in early August because there is no money on the immigration budget line. The potential closures of such crucial programs and services are absolutely devastating for those who are already in dire need. These cuts will greatly impact the wellbeing of so many refugee and immigrant families in my community, as well as those who will be resettled here soon (including the thousands of Syrian refugees who are expected to be resettled in Chicago in the next few years.)

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This May, grassroots organizers and clergy of many faith traditions got together and discussed how we were going to respond to this moral revenue crisis.  Inspired by the Moral Mondays movement in NC, we started the Moral Mondays IL movement, which began a series of actions in Chicago that included prayer, faith teachings, and biblical stories/images and called our state legislators to create a moral budget.  We are calling our legislators to raise progressive revenue by closing corporate tax loopholes, having a fair graduated income tax, and taxing financial transactions on Illinois exchanges (which could raise billions of dollars and could help us avoid cutting crucial programs and services). 

Many of my parishioners have been participating in the Moral Mondays IL actions regularly throughout the summer – both because they feel their faith calls them to and because of personal reasons.  Several of my parishioners have participated in these actions because they or their family members will be affected by cuts to Medicaid, mental health services, home-care services, and LIHEAP (Low-Income Housing Assistance Program.) One of my seniors has been particularly active in these actions – even participating in civil disobedience in June. Her daughter is bi-polar and is on Medicaid. However, the proposed Medicaid cuts will cut a portion of her medication. She will not be able to afford this medication on her own and will thus rely on her mother (my senior) for help, who is already financially strapped since her only source of income is Social Security. These are just a few of the many examples of how the budget impasse and proposed budget cuts are affecting the seniors, youth, children, and families at my congregations and in my community.

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I’ve been active in Moral Mondays IL actions, standing with and marching alongside my parishioners and community members, and I participated in civil disobedience at Citadel this June because the proposed state budget cuts (and the current budget impasse) are already devastating so many of our children, youth, families, and seniors.

It is despicable that there is so much money in the hands of the most wealthy in our state – including our governor and many of his top financial supporters like Citadel’s CEO Ken Griffin, who makes $90,000 per hour – and yet instead of raising new progressive revenue, our governor and his buddies have chosen to balance the budget on the backs of those in our communities who are most vulnerable!

Jesus said: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

In the psalms we hear God’s call to: “Defend the cause of the weak and orphans; to maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. To rescue the weak and needy; to deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:3-4)

In Proverbs we hear God’s voice proclaiming: “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.” (Proverbs 21:13) “…[Therefore] speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:9)

In Leviticus, we hear God’s command to redistribute wealth.  “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 23:22)

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On Monday, June 29, 2015, two Lutheran pastors, two Methodist pastors, a rabbi, two community organizers, and a senior citizen got arrested for trespassing in the lobby of Citadel in downtown Chicago during a Moral Mondays Illinois action.

I was one of them.

Because my faith proclaims that ALL people are beloved children of God and deserve to live holistic and healthy lives.  It calls me to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God, and to take action with and for those who are being pushed to the margins and trampled on until we do have justice for ALL.

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If you are in Illinois, please join the movement.  Educate yourself on what is going on with our budget and revenue crisis.  Listen to the stories of your neighbors who are being impacted by these proposed cuts.  Follow Moral Mondays IL on Facebook and march with us in our upcoming actions.  (Our next action is this Monday, November 2 at 10:30am at the Thompson Center.)

So join us in saying “Enough is Enough!  Love thy neighbor as thyself: tax the rich and share the wealth!”

“A Camel, An Eye of a Needle, and An Upside Kingdom of God” – Sermon on Mark 10:17-31

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“As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” – Mark 10:17-31


Jesus has set out on a journey when he encounters a man who is in need of some answers.

“Good Teacher,” he says, “what must I do in order to inherit eternal life?”

Now, the eternal life this man is asking about is not what we often think of when we see it on bumper stickers or hear it preached about by televangelists. It’s not a life lived forever in an other-worldly place somewhere up there. The Greek word aoinios – which we translate into “eternal” or “everlasting” – is an adjective which means: “age-long” or “partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief or fleeting.” It is having “the quality describing a particular age” or a period of time. And this eternal life the man was asking Jesus about was a life in the “Age to Come.”

You see, many First Century Jews maintained hope that the Present Age in which they currently lived – that was full of inequalities and where many of God’s people faced suffering and oppression -would one day end and the Age to Come would begin – where God would restore God’s kingdom to the earth and oppression and injustice would cease. And the question on many of these first Century Jews’ minds was how they might inherit this eternal life… How they might ensure that they would enter into this Age to Come.

And this rabbi named Jesus seemed to be a likely candidate to have answers to this question. He had been teaching about this Age to Come, this Kingdom of God – he often called it – which he proclaimed was not just in the far future, but was soon to come. And as the early Christian audience of Mark’s Gospel came to believe, this Kingdom of God started to break through into the earth at Jesus’ death and resurrection, and thus was not just something that was in the future when Jesus would return – although it would not be fully realized until then – but it was also something at work in the present. It was an upside down Kingdom of God – both in the here and now and that which is to come, where the last would be first and the first will be last, the poor will be blessed, and the slave will be free.

But before Jesus’ death, for many of the religious, the inheritance of the Age to Come came by strictly following their particular interpretations of the Mosaic Law. And so on the surface, part of Jesus’ response to this man who is kneeling before him may not have been very surprising. After saying to the man: “What do you mean by calling me good? Nobody is good except for God,” Jesus goes on to say to him: “Now you know the commandments…” and then he lists some of them off. ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”

“Of course,” the man jumps in confidently. “Teacher, I have kept these commandments since my youth.”

Now, this man’s response suggests that he may not quite get Jesus’ point.

He doesn’t seem to catch what Jesus is saying about how it is only God – and God alone – who can be deemed as fully good and without flaw or sin, no matter how great of a commandment-obeyer one might be. He doesn’t seem to notice that Jesus did not list ALL the 10 commandments. That Jesus named only the commandments that talk about how to treat some of our neighbors in particular ways, but that Jesus skipped the commandments that relate directly to our relationship with God and the commandments about coveting – or yearning for – our neighbor’s stuff.

“Well,” Jesus seems to be implying by his choice of omitting several of these commandments, “Yes, you may be obeying these particular commandments. Yes, you may be quite the honorable man who does not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or defraud your neighbors, and you may be one who honors your mother and father. But what about your relationship with God? What about making time for Sabbath? Do you take a break from the business of work and all the things that get in the way of your relationship with God and make time to rest in God’s presence? What about creating other gods in your life that come before God the Father? Do you put money, your personal image, your possessions, and social status before God and turn them into gods, themselves, by idolizing them? What about saying God’s name in vain? Do you misuse God’s name to justify societal structures and your personal actions that contribute to the marginalization and suffering of your neighbors? What about coveting what your neighbors have? Do you long for the kind of status, wealth, power, and possessions that they have – so much that you do whatever you can to gain more for yourself?”

“While you may obey many of these commandments,” Jesus says to the man as he looks at him and feels a deep love for him: “You still lack one thing.  So go, shed from your life the things that get in the way of your relationship with God and with others. Sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and follow me.  Let go of the things that keep you from obeying the greatest commandment: to love God fully and in doing so, to love your neighbor as yourself.”

When the man heard this, he was shocked, and he went away grieving, for he was wealthy and owned a lot of possessions.

Then Jesus looked around at his disciples and said: “How hard will it be for those with wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” The disciples were perplexed by Jesus’ words. But Jesus said to them again: “How hard is it to get into the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to get through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the Kingdom of God!”

*****

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a woman I met a few years ago about how hard it was to live in poverty when she was in middle and high school. Because her single mother struggled on and off with unemployment, there were many times when Sarah and her younger brother went to school not knowing if they would have much for dinner that night. And yet, she said that even though she could have used the extra money, there were times when she would babysit the neighbor children for free during the summer when their parents couldn’t pay for daycare. She also told me that when her mom’s job became a little more stable, her mom helped her friend pay her bills for a few months while she was going through a divorce. And there were many times when Sarah’s family had neighbors over for dinner when they had the money to buy extra food or when they allowed friends to stay at their apartment when their friends were temporarily homeless. Sarah told me that she and her family wanted to be as generous as they could be with others in need because they knew how hard it was to go to bed hungry or to worry about being evicted from their apartment because they couldn’t pay their rent.

However, Sarah said that things changed after she got a well-paying job as an adult and began to live very comfortably. She sadly explained to me that the more money she made over the years, the less generous she became. When I asked her why she thought that was, she said: “I think when you have more than enough money to live comfortably, it can become really easy to stay in your own bubble and forget that there are many people around you who are suffering. And I think the more money you have, the harder it is to give it away. At a certain point, it becomes really difficult not to try to keep up with the Jones’… And we all know that once you start that race, it will never end because you can never actually catch up with them. You will never be fully satisfied with what you have. You will always want something more for yourself. And because of this, you focus on your own wants and forget how to love and care for those around you.”

*****

No, it is not easy to enter in this Kingdom of God that Jesus speaks of when we idolize wealth and the possessions, power, and social status that come with it – whether we have this wealth or we long for and strive to have it.  It is not easy to get into this upside down Age to Come that is already breaking forth into the here and now – where the last shall be first and the first shall be last… Where we are called to be co-workers with God in challenging oppression, inequalities, and injustice until they forever shall cease.

No, it is not easy to shed from our lives the things that get in the way of loving God fully and thus, in doing so, loving our neighbor as ourself.

But, as Jesus goes onto say to his disciples: while it may be impossible for us to do so on our own, it is not impossible for God. Because for God, all things are possible. And therefore, all things are possible with the help and by the grace of God.

*****

In a little while, we will have the wonderful opportunity of celebrating two baptisms. And in doing so, we are also being called to remember our own baptism. As we look to the cleansing baptismal waters this morning, let us reflect on what it is that we need to be cleansed of… what it is that we need to shed from our lives so that we can love God and love our neighbor fully.

And no matter how difficult it may be for us to let these things go, may we hold onto the promise that with God’s help and by God’s grace, all things are possible.

Because in our baptism, we are claimed by our compassionate and merciful God – who loves us in and through all of our mistakes, failures, and struggles. Because – as our Hebrews text for today reminds us – “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help [us and others] in time of need.”

Amen.